Originally forest dwellers, Katkaris tribe in Maharashtra face the risk of increasingly getting marginalised as they grapple with landlessness, lack of connectivity, water and electricity
Raigad in Maharashtra was the first capital of the Maratha Empire. It’s the land of captivating forts and free-flowing streams, it’s home to picturesque Konkan belt where Adivasis stay dormant deep inside jungles, as if incongruous. It is surrounded by Thane and Navi Mumbai on the North, Pune and Ratnagiri on the East and South, respectively, while the Arabian Sea gently rests on the West. The region starts where the hustle of Mumbai ends — or, perhaps, Mumbai begins where the rustic charm of Raigad ends. It is spread out into four subdivisions for administrative convenience, with 15 talukas and 1967 villages.
As per the 2011 census, Maharashtra had a population of 11.42 crore, of which 9.35% are Adivasis categorized as Scheduled Tribes (ST). Maharashtra has the second-largest Adivasi population in the country, next only to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. Raigad has 26.3 lakh people, of which 11.58% are Adivasis. That’s about a little more than 3 lakh. More than 80% of them are Katkaris.
The Katkari tribes are located primarily in Raigad, in parts of Palghar, Ratnagiri and Thane districts as well as in some places of Gujarat. Katkaris were placed under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, an inhuman piece of legislation enforced during the British rule. The Act described certain groups of people as ‘habitually criminal’ and put restrictions on their movements, which led to alienation, stereotyping and harassment, to say the least.
After independence, the Act was repealed, resulting in more than 20 lakh Adivasis across the country being decriminalised. However, the stigma associated with the Act continues to haunt the Katkaris and several Adivasis to this day. Currently, the Katkaris are classified as particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs). The government of India came up with this classification to introduce targeted interventions noting that some Adivasi groups had the least development indices as compared to other Adivasis groups. The criteria used by the state for classifying PVTGs was as follows:
1. A pre-agricultural system of existence such as hunting, gathering
2. Zero or negative population growth
3. Extreme low level of literacy in comparison with other Adivasi groups
4. A subsistence level of economy
The groups that satisfied any one of the above criteria were considered a PVTG. There are more than 700 Adivasi groups in India, and only 75 are classified as PVTG. Maharashtra is home to three such groups.
During my initial days in Mangaon (a town in Raigad), I could not believe that people lived in such extreme poverty so close to urban megacities and still somehow went unnoticed. I started looking at the development indices. Maharashtra is the fastest-growing state in India. Its GDP is $360 billion; Tamil Nadu, the state that comes second, is much behind with a GDP of $230. As of 2011, Maharashtra’s Human Development Index (HDI) was 0.752. Raigad’s HDI in the same period was 0.759. Now, that’s higher than the state’s HDI! Data master Hans Rosling said that it is dangerous to look at average data because, often, there is a huge difference within.
Katkaris were historically forest-dwellers. The name Katkari is derived from a forest-based activity — the making and barter or sale of Katechu (kath) from the khair tree (acacia katechu). It is produced by boiling wood from the khair tree and evaporating the resulting brew. This makes an astringent used in Ayurvedic medicine and mixtures chewed with betel leaves.
The Katkaris were also one of the few Adivasi communities of India that consumed rodents. However, it is not clear if this practice still continues. The most common surname is Waghmare, which means tiger slayer. They are bilingual, speaking the Katkari language among themselves and Marathi with others. A few of them speak Hindi as well. Today, most Katkaris have migrated from their forest dwellings to the plains, while some hamlets are located on the hills.
During my visits to a few Adivasi hamlets, an apparent division was evident. Almost every Adivasi hamlet is located on the boundary of the main non-Adivasi part. These Adivasi hamlets are suffixed with the term ‘Adivasi’, e.g. Warak Wadi and Warak Adivasiwadi. The village cement road ends where the Adivasiwadi begins and the settlements seldom have water connection and/or electricity. Schools and community centres are also located in the main village. This is an indication of physical exclusion.
Like most Adivasi communities, Katkaris are plagued with the issue of landlessness and subsequent distress migration. Most literature on the Katkaris cites landlessness as the single-biggest problem making them vulnerable and deprived. The landless rate of 87% among the Katkaris is much higher than 48% for rural households in India as a whole. The Forest Rights Act, 2006, rules that traditional forest-dwellers shall have the right to hold and live in forest land under the individual or common occupation for habitation or self-cultivation for livelihood. Despite the Act being in force for over a decade, only 13% of the Katkaris have been assigned forest land.
As a result of landlessness, migration is rampant, and livelihoods are seasonal. During the agricultural season of May to October, they work as labourers in the fields of Marathas, which they deem as their golden period of the year and, hence, life. They earn a wage of ₹300 per day, along with lunch and tea. They also catch fish and crabs during this season, which they sell in nearby towns. Some income also comes from minor forest produce. In the months from November to April, most of them migrate to become brick kiln workers or daily wage labourers. Bonded labour is prevalent, and living conditions are dismal.
Topping everything, the Katkaris face eviction of all forms. Selective development brings its own bag of problems. The rapid rise of Mumbai and surrounding areas led to skyrocketing land prices, leading to landholders selling land to corporates and developers. This land is in close quarters to Adivasi settlements and Adivasis are constantly intimidated to move to different locations.
While India propels towards bullet trains, a section of society is still struggling for the basic needs of life.